The Peter Rabbit screening I attended was on a Saturday morning, when I would otherwise be asleep. The movie theater was crawling with children. They handed out paper bunny ears at the door. THERE WAS FACE PAINTING. What I’m saying is, the environment was not conducive to encouraging my better angels. And then the movie started and…I could not stop laughing. The trailers have been atrocious, but—hear me out—Peter Rabbit is good. Like, actually, really good. Is it Paddington 2 good? No, it’s not quite THAT good. But Peter Rabbit is really funny. It’s SUPER CUTE, with something for everyone without feeling like it’s trying to please everyone, and, here’s the kicker, it’s a STEALTH ROM-COM.
James Corden voices Peter Rabbit, whose running feud with Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) ends when McGregor croaks during one of their fights. Beatrix Potter purists might be annoyed at the turn, but there is an exposition dump about Peter’s (violent) history with Mr. McGregor done in the classic Potter style, which should soothe sore tempers. And any remaining annoyance is then erased because this is when Domhnall Gleeson shows up as “the new McGregor”, shoulders this movie, and CARRIES IT ACROSS THE FINISH LINE LIKE A CHAMP. Domhnall Gleeson is the first, second, and last reason to see Peter Rabbit. Sure, the animals are cute and the voice work is generally good (the trio of Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki—did you know she is six-two?—and Daisy Ridley voice Peter’s younger sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail). But Domhnall Gleeson, it turns out, has the comedy gene.
It's not even really a secret, like it was with Chris Hemsworth. Gleeson was on a sketch comedy show in Ireland years ago, so they’ve known about his funny for a solid decade and never clued the rest of us in (STOP BEING SELFISH, IRELAND). But if you fall down the YouTube hole of Domhnall Gleesons’s Irish sketch comedy show—and you REALLY should—you will see that we have been missing out on so much Gleeson goodness (see also: this and this). He’s HILARIOUS. And that is what Peter Rabbit is using, getting not only an A+ physical performance out of him—reacting to nothing, it’s really impressive—but also leaning on his knack for killer line readings. Unfortunately, he’s not in his native Irish accent (#freetheaccent2018), but his English accent is funnier (see also: General Hux), and his sneering line readings are golden.
The new McGregor is not an irascible old farmer annoyed with Peter and his friends tearing up his garden, he’s a control freak who can’t handle the disorder and dirt of nature, as represented by Peter. And between them is Bea—an obvious Beatrix Potter stand-in—played by Rose Byrne, who does not have nearly enough to do but makes the most of what she’s got. Bea loves Peter and all the local wildlife, and believes that humans are just sharing nature with animals. She wants the new McGregor to leave his garden gates open. But the animals ruin the garden and track dirt everywhere, so that is not going to happen. And thus Peter and the new McGregor are embroiled in war.
But really, what’s happening is that the new McGregor is falling for Bea, and as they grow closer, Peter becomes more and more unhinged, threatened by, essentially, the potential step-father wooing his surrogate mother—after the death of his parents, Bea took care of Peter and his siblings, and he resents the new McGregor for coming between him and Bea. Their feud is less about the garden and more about the sometimes painful acclimation faced by blended families. There’s a nice little lesson about the infinite nature of love tucked into Peter Rabbit. But mostly it’s Home Alone but in a garden with talking animals.
If you’ve got to take the tots to the theater, see Paddington 2 while you can. That’s the top shelf stuff. But if that’s not available, move down one shelf to Peter Rabbit. It’s adorable, it’s not painful to sit through, and Domhnall Gleeson is really, really great. In fact, he’s so great he should be Internet Boyfriend 2018 (I have the campaign all worked out). Peter Rabbit is well written—courtesy Rob Lieber and director Will Gluck—and has a lot of pretty great jokes, and one KILLER gag involving Bananagrams. It would be a decent movie with anyone starring in it. But with Domhnall Gleeson, Actual Funny Person, it rises to being one of the funniest kids’ movies in recent memory.